April 25, 2008

Links between California Wildfires and GHG emissions

"Reducing wildfires maybe the single most important action we can take in the short-term to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming." - Dr. Tom Bonnicksen

Dr. Tom Bonnicksen, a professor at Texas A&M and author of "America's Ancient Forests: from the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery" is a staunch advocate for restoring our forests to a healthier condition. That shouldn't make him controversial but it does because he advocates what many environmental groups consider "heretical" means to achieve this objective - removing excess biomass through forest thinning, salvaging of dead and dying trees, and reforestation on a massive scale. Recognizing such restorative steps will require the building of temporary roads and the re-introduction of forest product industries to buy the wood, he has drawn criticism from environmental groups, including coordinated attempts to question his academic credentials.

Above is a historic chart produced by the National Interagency Fire Center that plots the disturbing rise in wildfire acreage nationwide in the last 50 years. This doesn't register the growth of intensity of fires which are believed to be at unprecedented ferocity producing even more GHG. The trend line shows the legacy of the last ten years when litigious obstruction by environmental groups of planned USDA Forest Service projects has been the most vigorous - delaying remedial public forest programs.

To circulate his interpretation to a broader audience, Dr. Bonnicksen published a very professional 52-page booklet titled "Protecting Communities and Saving Forests: Solving the Wildfire Crisis through Restoration Forestry." It should be required reading for all environmental policy makers in California because it clearly states how the state has arrived at a condition of ever increasing wildfires and suggests sensible actions to mitigate the problem.

Taking his research a step further, Dr. Bonnicksen has just released a new study entitled "Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Four California Wildfires: Opportunities to Prevent and Reverse Environmental and Climate Impacts" which draws the connection between GHG and forest fires. Without restorative action, fires will get worse and greenhouse gas emissions will increase. With action, not only will the growth of forest fires and bug infestations likely be held in check, but more carbon will be sequestered, correcting the imbalance created by the original fires.

A key to understanding the urgency for remedial action is recognition that GHG doesn't just come from the combustion and smoke of the original fire - that only accounts for 25% of the emissions. The other 75% comes during the period of decay of the affected forest. According to his research of four representative fires, initial combustion plus eventual decay emissions represent the equivalent of adding 7 million cars to California's roadways for 1 year!

The study also paints a revealing picture of the difference in GHG impact between responsive action by private timberland owners versus the publicly-obstructed remedies proposed by the federal government. Because of fierce anticipated public opposition, the Forest Service has no know plans to plant trees on burned areas of the Tahoe area Angora fire - consequently 0% of the total CO2 emitted will eventually be recovered from plantings. Contrast this with the Fountain Fire where 100% of the privately owned burned land was replanted. The study estimates that 99.2% of the original lost C02 will be recovered.

Here is an abstract written by The Forest Foundation on their website where free copies of the study is available for download:

Wildfires, Forests and Climate Change
California wildfires release millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Conversely, sustainable forest management removes greenhouse gases from the air, stores carbon in wood products and regenerates landscapes in a perpetual cycle of carbon sequestration. The Forest Foundation developed the Forest Carbon and Emission Model (FCEM) to help clarify the relationships between wildfires, forest management and greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Four California Wildfires: Opportunities to Prevent and Reverse Environmental and Climate Impacts

In the report above, the FCEM presents details of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with four California wildfires. It estimates the total emissions from combustion and decay, provides comparisons to autos and other emission sources, and notes the potential value of reforestation to recapture gases released from wildfire. This report considers the Angora, Moonlight, Star and Fountain fires.

Forest Foundation Study Finds Four Wildfires Send 38 Million Tons Of Harmful Gases Into Air, Equivalent Of 7 Million Cars On The Road For One Year In California

The Forest Carbon and Emission Model Overview and Technical Information

The FCEM report above considers site characteristics like vegetation type, density, mortality, acres burned, and other factors to estimate emission totals. The FCEM Overview and Technical Information report explains the inputs and methodologies used to drive the model.

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